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Broad Agreement on How Society Feels

Study by sociologists at Freie Universität Berlin shows, for the first time, broad consensus in emotional perception of human sociality and subtle differences between status groups

№ 176/2014 from May 20, 2014

A study by sociologists of the Cluster “Languages of Emotion” at Freie Universität Berlin provides evidence that evaluative social perceptions are widely shared within German society. Despite broad consensus, there are notable cultural and class-specific differences, according to the researchers Jens Ambrasat and Prof. Dr. Christian von Scheve. The study is based on a large online survey with more than 2,800 participants who were asked to indicate what feelings were triggered by various terms from different areas of social life. The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The study investigated the foundations of social perceptions on the basis of the affective meaning of language. According to the authors, the results show broad consensus within society with regard to the implicit and affective meaning of social concepts. There are also differences in perception depending on social class. For example, concepts for intimate relationships such as "wife," "companion," or "ally" are perceived as pleasant and strong by all participants. The researchers found, however, that members of higher socioeconomic groups tended to be less positive toward these concepts than members of middle and lower status groups. On the other hand, members of higher status groups found terms for socially deviant persons, such as "rogue," "trouble maker," or "criminal" to be unpleasant, stronger, and more annoying, altogether more threatening, than members of middle and lower status groups.

As part of the online survey, participants had to evaluate a total of 909 concepts from the semantic fields "authority" and "community." The words were sorted into clusters based on their emotional significance. This resulted in groups of clusters with associated meanings, such as "institutional authorities," "intimate relations,” or "antisocial individuals."

The findings tally with previous studies on values and attitudes, but are more telling when it comes to the likely consequences for social behavior, according to sociologists Jens Ambrasat and Prof. Dr. Christian von Scheve, who conducted the research with psychologists Dr. Markus Conrad, Gesche Schauenburg, and Prof. Dr. Tobias Schröder. “These unconscious affective meanings and feelings that people associate with certain concepts directly guide the assessment of social situations and individuals' own actions and can be a stabilizing factor for social order,” says Jens Ambrasat, lead author of the study. Subtle differences between social classes are most likely brought about by various social inequalities. In sum, the study provides evidence for the great relevance of emotions in social relationships, the researchers say.


Jens Ambrasat, Christian von Scheve, Markus Conrad, Gesche Schauenburg, Tobias Schröder (2014): "Consensus and Stratification in the Affective Meaning of Human Sociality," in: PNAS; published ahead of print May 19, 2014 (doi: 10.1073/pnas.1313321111).

Link to the Publication


Further Information

Jens Ambrasat, Languages of Emotion Cluster, Freie Universität Berlin, Email: jens.ambrasat@fu-berlin.de